Out of the Frying Pan
I hadn’t fried chicken in fourteen years.
In the muffled grief and grey skies of depression, where one-month passing can feel like a year gone by, fourteen years is an eternity. A lifetime. I was thirty years old then—un-recognizable to myself now. If I’d known, I might have never fried chicken in the first place. I might never have tried.
Years ago, after tracing geologic time and after a difficult divorce from a man who barely knew me and didn’t care to, I was engaged to someone who loved the way I made fried chicken. And he loved me and my young child, which I considered a miracle since I’d been told time and again by family, media outlets, and Western culture at large, that a single woman with a child was dating-market poison. Damaged goods. So I was one of the lucky ones. I found someone who loved me. Who wanted to take the chance. The noisy and internalized trope of being lucky enough to find another person to not only accept but to love, one’s own flawed and wrecked self, pulsed throughout my person on a cellular level. As such, I counted myself even more fortunate than the average being. After all, I was carrying with me the human proof that I had attempted to love before and had failed. That the ties that bind can certainly be severed and that even the best of intentions in no way guaranteed a storybook ending. That a good-faith effort can end in sadness and torn at the seams. The merits of this luck-based messaging are debatable at best, but the rules of the partnership-seeking landscape in American society at the time dictated that being worthy of love and acceptance pivoted off of traveling lightly and making one’s needs as scant as possible. Armed with this intuited knowledge, I set out to be the best future wife known to all and sundry. To provide love and care without needing too much of either for myself. I love with food, so I learned to cook and cook well.
I fried chicken at least once a week. I became skilled at creating cream gravy that was both velvety and lump-free. I perfected whipping up light and pillowy mashed potatoes. I learned the secrets of using the right kind of potato (Yukon gold—thin skins and little starch) and heating up the milk prior to a proper introduction to the potatoes, so they would rise instead of sinking under the burden of cold milk poured onto too-starchy russets. I became fearless while wielding softened butter and salt. I fashioned myself into a serviceable home cook with a concentration in comfort food. Never having cooked for myself in such a manner, it was a delight to make involved meals for someone who so appreciated them. I viewed making his favorite kind of dinners as an expression of my love, a method to illustrate my affection and care. A way to telegraph, “I’ll make the effort to consistently turn out elaborate dishes because you’re worth it. Please accept my love for you in this fashion.” Nourishing him was nourishing our relationship and our love. It was a tactile way to express my feelings. What better manner in which to show adoration than through a delicious, beloved meat-and-two?
I stopped frying chicken in 2007 when this man died suddenly and unexpectedly two weeks shy of his 38th birthday. He suffered a fatal heart attack alone and in the middle of the night, collapsing onto his living room floor. I found him the next afternoon after he failed to answer my phone calls and I drove to his house to check on him. We were supposed to visit my grandparents that day, toting along my mother and my child. He hadn’t washed the dishes from the last meal I’d made him the day before. Evidence of our life together was all around us, as I screamed into the phone for the paramedics to hurry, hurry, but the magic was gone. The quicksilver I’d briefly held in my palm slipped through my fingers. I commenced the emotional journey of turning to stone. I had a heart full of love to give and his heart was so full, it had simply burst and ceased to function, resulting in his death.
This was the man who had lifted me from the instability of single motherhood. Had lit from within the lovability and wholeness in me I felt I had never possessed. Dreams shattered and experiencing a desperate, hungry love that could find no purchase, I retreated. I dug deep and found a job within six weeks of his death after being unemployed for the entirety of the prior year. I had naïvely resigned from my previous position to make room for my new life as a stay-at-home mother and wife. I thought that my engagement ring meant that our love was forever and provided immunity from any misfortune within the realm of us. That the future was promised and my happiness assured. My own prior divorce proves the fault in this logic, but I had imbued our love and our relationship with a magical quality of invincibility. The power and idiocy of youth. Death was something to contend with after decades together, not before the marital union even began. Proven to be a fool time and again, I turned inward and began the grim work of putting my own food on the table.
My life and vocation were supposed to be caring for my son and my soon-to-be-husband. We were to be married four months from the day he died. A one-hundred-twenty-day countdown instantly toppled in a shattered heartbeat. I knew that happiness was no longer within my reach and that any semblance of joy merely a beautiful soap bubble. My urge to cook for another evaporated along with the future I’d envisioned for us. Cooking became quaint and obsolete, a useless and vestigial skill for a life that no longer existed. As humankind no longer exhibited a need for tails or appendices, I no longer had use for the kitchen know-how it took to make a fried chicken Sunday dinner. The absence of love to share meant an end to my culinary pursuits. The woman I had been mere months before was a stranger to me by that point. The hopeful, optimistic, upbeat person I had been was replaced by a gaunt, stoic silhouette of her. I no longer recognized that person—could not approximate her happiness, her cheer, her vivacity. Could not imagine the sunny side of the street where she used to live. Could no longer conjure the lightness in her step. Now all meal-related love was directed towards my three-year-old. Never again would I make a man feel special by cooking for him. Too risky, too fraught, too messy, too involved. I started making casseroles and kid-friendly foods exclusively. I fed myself mostly soup and sandwiches. I kept moving, feeding myself only the basics. Nutrition, yes, but nourishment, no.
Much can change in fourteen years. Fourteen years can be a jail sentence. It can be penance. It can mean seeking and never finding. It can be a journey. It can be discovery. And it can be all of these. Fourteen years of pain, hope, concealment, destruction, and ultimately love have led me to the here and now. After meeting a unique and outrageously exciting man almost ten years after the death of my fiancé, and after much pain, drama, love, hope, and many lies and false starts with him, we are in a much different, happier, more secure place. At our first meeting, the ever-cliched “click” sounded distinctly and with flair and has only continued to increase in volume. This person fascinates and inspires me in all ways, and the wildly serendipitous path that led us toward each other was too critical and incredible to ignore, so I took the chance. I was willing to risk and get hurt again if it meant time spent with him in any capacity. The pain we inflicted on each other has been worth it, although there were times when I couldn’t see how we could progress past certain turning points. But each time I considered walking away and protecting my heart from more pain, I was faced with the specter of a man-sized gap in my heart and in my existence, and I simply could not give up. The sun comes out when he’s around. He is a baby’s first taste of sugar. He is Dorothy stepping onto the yellow brick road and into Technicolor. He’s worth cooking for, so I’ve been rebuilding and flexing my culinary muscles with increasing frequency and to increasing degrees of success.
I started with a marinated baked chicken in February of 2020 after a romantic reconciliation nine months in the making. Elementary. Simple. Low risk. Nearly impossible to ruin and requiring almost no effort, the chicken gesture resulted in success. I cooked and I improved. By the time the pandemic-triggered apocalypse was upon us and in full swing, I’d again become skilled in the kitchen. Following intricate recipes, baking, tossing together handfuls of unrelated ingredients, and transforming them into meals, I was stacking up a decent and solid track record. My confidence ballooned.
I approached increasingly difficult techniques and recipes. I crafted a honey lemon cake from the website of a particularly well-known home-making maven for the unique one’s half-birthday. I envisioned and created polenta recipes for days. Perfected the frittata. Medium rare steak in cast iron? Yes. Pizza? Better than takeout. Gently prepared halibut with a dusting of paprika? He declared it restaurant-quality (necessary tools: plenty of salt, garlic, and butter). Some of the meals were memorialized photographically and encoded in my Instagram’s DNA. Likes and comments flowed forth as my social media connections engaged with my newfound efforts in the kitchen. My relationship continued to grow as he and I engaged with each other, took risks, suffered setbacks, and learned to trust.
I hand-lettered meal plans by the week. I maintained a standing, weekly grocery day during which I loaded my carts from four to five different stores with items carefully chosen and listed on lined paper in my specific and dedicated notebook for household pursuits. It took me about two hours to complete grocery day. I kept coolers in the cargo area of our car, so I could buy cold and frozen items and not go home after every store to unload. Dallas gets and pretty much stays hot, after all. I held these pedestrian items near to me, as I considered them trappings and physical manifestations of relationship success. Surely happy and competent adults made and followed grocery lists? And meal plans? I fervently hoped this was the case. I was coming to trust my instincts and my gut. The relationship continued to soar, if not linearly, then at least with fewer and fewer loop-de-loops until it resembled not so much a stunt flight as it did a targeted mission towards euphoria.
But I hadn’t fried chicken. I was convinced I’d lost the knack for it, that it wouldn’t be any good anymore, that it belonged to my past. It remained my impossible dream: to enjoy a fried chicken-caliber relationship again. That anything would really be that good once more. That lightning could indeed strike twice. No way. No way was I trying fried chicken. That part of me remained closed-off and unreachable.
Until an impossibly beautiful fall weekend. That weekend felt like a fried chicken weekend. The weather was lovely and I knew the kitchen wouldn’t reach sweltering levels of temperature. College football would be on the television all of Saturday. I had nowhere to be, no chores to complete, no shopping to get done, and most importantly, I had the time and inclination. The inclination to try again. The inclination to open myself up to vulnerability and the possibility of failure. Food is indeed a significant way for me to express love, yes, but also a conduit to create. As much as I loved and continue to love cooking for my partner, imagining flourishes to add to old favorites and conjuring new dishes to consider for introduction to the menu’s heavy rotation holds for me a fixed and separate place in my mind. I was able to hold space for myself within the culinary realm as well as in the relationship. I had learned that a pursuit holding the simple and solitary pleasure of existing for my own purposes held value. That I had the ability to navigate and manage my instincts and urges. I wasn’t performing the duties of a chef but those of a partner. I grew to hone the blade separating wisdom from cynicism, optimism from naïveté. The realization that I could relax into love and not lose sight of the fact that storms could easily appear on the horizon was a comfort. I trusted myself to be able to handle any swerves in the course we had plotted.
But the main reason is far simpler than all of that. At long last, fried chicken sounded good. And I felt like it was possible. And more to the point, he wanted it that day when I brought up the idea of attempting it again. I recognized that sunny-side-of-the-street woman again. I saw and knew my happy face in the mirror once more. Reconciling the person I was before the death of my fiancé fourteen years ago with the person I had become through risk and reward and love and pain and trials and investing was startling, and the realization seemed to come all at once. I wanted to wrap my arms around the wounded, raw person I had been for so many years, but I was ready to move on from her. I was ready to at least give fried chicken bliss, trust, and love a shot.
I fried chicken and constructed chicken sandwiches on that gorgeous Saturday. And as with the general trajectory of all things love and living for me right now, they were terrific. And filling. And above all, nourishing.
A long-time enthusiast of essays and short fiction, Mandy White draws inspiration from the simple to the sublime for her own work. From a short book review of an airplane novel to a work of monumental significance, a song lyric to canonical craft, the written word flips the creative switch firmly entrenched in her mind, where the switch shares space with half-memorized grocery lists, poetry snippets, critical literary analysis, theme songs to 1980s television shows, the sound of dog snores, and Mandy’s social security number. A graduate with a B.A. in English from the University of Texas at Austin far longer ago than is comfortable to admit, Mandy credits her life-long love of the written English language to early-onset reading and writing skills in childhood, fantastic literature teachers in her formative years, and continued exploration in her post-undergraduate existence. Mandy enjoys her at-home, metropolitan living situation in Dallas with her supportive, motivational, and gallant partner and her beloved canine companion who takes the form of an elderly pug. This is Mandy’s first publication, and she will attend SmokeLong Summer 2022 with the support of a full bursary.